Scott Garner, Senior VP-programming and Scheduling & Matt Palmer, Senior VP-marketing

Kids and tweens find their generation's 'Grease', all carefully choreographed online by savvy Disney team

By Published on .

If you're hearing Disney Channel executives singing show tunes these days, there 's one good reason why: "High School Musical." The made-for-TV movie, described as a cross between "Grease" and "Romeo & Juliet," has quickly become a cultural phenomenon among 6-to-14-year-olds and their families, giving the network its biggest hit ever.

Just how big? Its Jan. 20 premiere on the basic-cable channel attracted 7.7 million viewers, making it the top rated basic-cable show that week and Disney Channel's most popular original movie ever. Its 10 airings have attracted 34 million viewers combined, regularly winning its time slot, and bested only once by "Cowbelles," another Disney Channel movie. Sing-along and dance-along versions have followed, featuring additional footage and interviews with cast members Zac Efron, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel. Kenny Ortega, who choreographed "Dirty Dancing," directed the $5 million film, which is Disney Channel's 61st original movie since 1998.

With virtually no radio support, the movie's soundtrack hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart four weeks after its release, then did it again two weeks later. At one point, nine singles, including B5's version of "Get'cha Head in the Game," adopted by the National Basketball Association, appeared on the chart in the same week. After 12 weeks, the soundtrack sold 1.3 million units, Soundscan said, with more than 40% of sales generated online. The movie's five music videos have dominated iTunes, and the 90-minute film was the first film to be sold on the service.

Disney Channel executives aren't too surprised by the runaway hit. "With the musical aspect, the great talent and the timing, we knew we had something special," says Scott Garner, 36, senior VP-programming and scheduling, who orchestrated the film's rollout with Matt Palmer, 40, senior VP-marketing. "To expand into the cultural phenomenon that it did was a very pleasant surprise."

"High School's" promotion began last Thanksgiving with 15-second teasers. Music videos followed in December, and the cast was introduced in a New Year's Eve special and longer promos starting in January. An on-screen countdown clock kicked off 10 days before the release. The soundtrack debuted a week before the premiere.

"Given that it was a musical, the music became a really important part of the marketing," Mr. Palmer says.

Online media proved crucial for the campaign. A free song offer prior to the film's release generated 200,000 downloads, helping promote the film and soundtrack, and drove traffic to Disney Channel.com. Within 24 hours after the film premiered, 1.2 million unique visitors logged onto the channel's site, the most ever in a single day. And 500,000 people downloaded song lyrics for a sing-along broadcast.

"The whole digital landscape was critical for us," Mr. Palmer says. "We want to be everywhere kids are. They're the biggest multi- taskers and technology adapters."

Disney Channel isn't done. The cast is a regular on the talk show circuit, and appeared on both "Today" and "Good Morning America" the same day. The DVD and a special-edition soundtrack get released in May, and the movie unspools on 23 Disney Channels internationally in June. A novel, stage show and touring concert are planned. So is a sequel.

"We have a huge hit on our hands," Mr. Palmer says. "There's just an appetite for it. Whatever we do with this, kids are eating it up. We now have to figure out how to continue delivering this incredible film to kids in unique ways."

Selected for: 'High School Musical'

* The premiere garnered 7.7 million viewers but ...

* So far, more than 34 million viewers have watched via heavily promoted repeat airings.

* After 12 weeks the soundtrack sold 1.3 million units.

* Of the music sales, more than 40% are generated online.
Most Popular